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The Postscript: Multiplication tables

I never learned my multiplication tables. Not really.

To this day, if you ask me, “What is six times nine?” out of the blue, with some urgency, I will panic. (Please don’t do this.)

The troubles started when I was transferred from one math class to another in the third grade. I now understand that this was some sort of promotion from lower math to higher math, but it did not feel like that at the time.

Almost immediately, I realized everyone around me was privy to some secret code I didn’t know. It was called the multiplication tables, and I couldn’t imagine how they all knew it, but I clearly didn’t, and this was a source of enormous shame.

Only many years after the fact, I figured out that I had been transferred right after everyone had been drilled on the multiplication tables. The lower math class had not gotten to it yet. The higher class was finished with it. I was terrified.

I had no idea what was going on and, instead of actually learning the multiplication tables, I spent the next three years trying to hide my ignorance. In fact, as time passed, I became increasingly convinced this was knowledge I would never acquire and the best I could hope for was to escape detection.

I once talked to my mother about this. “I tried to help you with your multiplication tables,” she said. “Don’t you remember?”

Perhaps I do — vaguely. But I remained convinced that what I might be able to do at the kitchen table could never be replicated in real life — especially if someone shouted, “What is six times nine?” — which is exactly what my fourth-grade teacher did, in front of the class.

I had gone up to her to ask a question. Instead of answering it, she replied with this very loud non sequitur. Predictably, I had no answer.

“Don’t come up here asking me questions until you’ve learned your multiplication tables!”

You can rest assured I never asked another question in the fourth grade.

Today, I can still remember that awful fear. “How can everyone in the room know something that makes no sense to me?”

In retrospect, it seems so unnecessary. Shouldn’t someone have known that I hadn’t been taught this? I moved from the class next door, not from Finland. I’m guessing no one ever thought learning multiplication tables could be so daunting and intimidating. Although I’ve gone on to do reasonably well in math, I still would not like a pop quiz.

This memory bubbled up to me the other day as I made preparations to do some performances of my writing after a long time away from performing. There is a lot I don’t know. Some things have changed. Many things I never knew. There are acronyms I do not know and a lot of people talking and writing about stuff I’ve never heard of. I feel a familiar urge to hide under my desk.

I remember that feeling of being convinced there was this world of secrets I did not know, and I’ve been reminding myself there is a very good chance that there is no secret. And then reminding myself, if I don’t know something, I can always just ask.

I’m trying to do what I should have done in third grade. I’m walking right up to people and saying, “I have no idea what you are talking about. Will you please explain this to me?”

And, so far, no one has looked at me and said, “What is six times nine?”

Till next time,

Carrie

——

Carrie Classon is married to Havre native Peter Heimdahl. Her memoir, “Blue Yarn: A Memoir About Loss, Letting Go, & What Happens Next,” was published in 2019. Photos and other things can be found on Facebook at CarrieClassonAuthor.

 

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